(PORTLAND, Maine) — The man accused of bankrolling the Maine Zumba studio, which instructor Alexis Wright allegedly used as a front for a brothel, denied having any involvement or knowledge of the alleged prostitution ring, but said he and Wright had an affair and he loaned her money.
In an interview with Nightline, Mark Strong Sr., flanked by his lawyer, Dan Lilley, spoke for the first time about the accusations that he was the 30-year-old Zumba instructor’s business partner in a prostitution scandal that has rocked the small New England town of Kennebunk, Maine.
“I’m sorry for any dishonesty [and] for the intimate relationship that I had with Alexis Wright,” Strong said.
Strong, a married 57-year-old former private investigator who owns an insurance agency, said he and Wright had a casual relationship at the time of his arrest and he had only been to Kennebunk “a few times.”
He denied he ever paid Wright for sex.
“We did have intimate moments but it’s not what I would consider romantic,” he said. “It was just physical.”
Prior to that, Strong said had known Wright for about three or four years and she once worked for him as a private investigator assistant. He admitted he gave her a personal loan for her Zumba business and co-signed the lease for her Pura Vida Zumba studio.
“It started out as a business relationship,” Strong said. “We had a friendship. We talked often. I may see her once a month.”
Wright has been charged with operating a brothel, as well as 106 counts of prostitution, violation of privacy, tax evasion and other charges. Strong faces 59 misdemeanor charges, including promotion of prostitution and violation of privacy for allegedly video-recording the encounters between the alleged prostitutes and some prominent local men.
Prosecutors said they have 100 hours of video evidence and photos, some of which were seized from Strong’s computer. Strong denied having any knowledge of that or having the materials in the first place.
Both Strong and Wright have pleaded not guilty to all the charges against them, and they stand to go to trial next week. Strong and his attorney said they also believe Wright is “innocent until proven guilty.”
Lilley asked for the trial to be postponed. He requested a change of venue and for himself to be removed from the case because Strong cannot afford his representation. But Justice Nancy Mills denied all motions and the trial is scheduled to begin on Jan. 22.
The scandal unraveled this past summer when Kennebunk Police raided Wright’s dance studio and a nearby office, where they confiscated detailed records and hours of video. Since then, the police have released a bi-weekly blotter on their website that documents arrests, complete with names, ages and home addresses.
More than 150 men — and at least one woman — are being investigated for whether they paid for sex at Wright’s Pura Vida Zumba dance studio, and 66 men face misdemeanor soliciting charges.
In October, police released the names of 21 men accused of paying for sex with Wright. Among them were James Soule, a former mayor of South Portland, Maine, and Don Hill, who stepped down as hockey coach for Kennebunk High School after his name appeared on a client list. Both Soule and Hill have plead not guilty.
In an interview with Nightline on Friday, two attorneys representing the 21 men charged with misdemeanor soliciting staunchly defended their clients.
“Their lives have been turned upside down since their names were mentioned in a police blotter, which is evidence of nothing, but the mere allegation here has been enough to smear people’s reputations,” said criminal defense attorney Stephen Schwartz.
Gary Prolman, the lawyer for Don Hill, said his client believed he was in a relationship with Wright, not only seeing her at her studio but also at her home.
“His intension was to go for a massage in Kennebunk,” Prolman said. “He and Ms. Wright, from his perspective, had a relationship.”
When Nightline approached Wright at her home in October to ask about the allegations, she refused to speak on the matter.
“I have no comment,” she said, before threatening to call the police and shutting the door.
Nightline also spoke to Wright’s attorney, Sarah Churchill, in October, who said the ordeal had been tough on her client. She is adamant that Wright is innocent.
“There’s been a lot of scrutiny on her,” Churchill said. “Getting through the day in any sort of normal way has been sort of difficult.”
Authorities said the Pura Vida Zumba dance studio is just a few miles down the road from the Bush family’s exclusive summer compound where the whole clan still vacations. President George H.W. Bush still has a summer place there and it is where his son, President George W. Bush, spent his boyhood summers.
According to court documents, the landlord for Wright’s studio called police after hearing unusual sounds coming from her office and seeing strange men come and go at all hours of the night.
Kennebunk-area resident Allison Ackley said she attended Wright’s Zumba classes and didn’t suspect what was going on.
“I thought she was a little, I don’t know, not risque, but a little flirtatious at times with a couple of the male participants of the class,” Ackley said of Wright. “But, I mean, it’s Zumba. You’re just in there to have fun.”
Lilley and Strong again reiterated that Strong had done nothing wrong. Lilley compared his client’s situation to a bank giving someone a personal loan and then that person using it to buy drugs.
“The bank is not responsible,” he said. “We feel there is a good analogy there.”
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